Burning Spear: The Ultimate Collection

="Description" CONTENT="Burning Spear, The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O), review by Wilson Neate

Burning Spear

The Ultimate Collection

US Release Date: 2001-06-19

More than a quarter century after achieving his first major success with the 1975 album Marcus Garvey, Winston Rodney -- better known as Burning Spear -- remains one of reggae's most politicized performers.

Hailing from Marcus Garvey's birthplace, St. Ann's Bay in Jamaica, Burning Spear was perhaps the first reggae artist to use his music as a vehicle for the dissemination of Garvey's creed of Black liberation. Since the mid-'70s, Spear has taken a didactic approach, infusing his roots grooves with Garvey's pan-Africanist philosophy of economic and cultural self-determination and self-reliance.

But even before Spear made his first recordings, his creative identity had become inextricably linked with the politics of resistance and liberation. He had borrowed his stage name from the Kenyan Mau Mau rebel leader Jomo Kenyatta ("Jomo" meaning "burning spear" in Swahili), who led his country and its diverse African communities to independence from British colonial rule, eventually becoming the nation's first president in 1964.

If figures such as Kenyatta and Garvey influenced Burning Spear's ideological formation in the late '60s, another resident of the Parish of St. Ann would have a significant impact on his nascent musical career. A chance meeting with a certain Robert Nesta Marley on a hillside in St. Ann's in 1969 led to Spear's recording debut. Marley arranged an audition for Burning Spear with storied producer Coxsone Dodd in Kingston, resulting in the release of the single "Door Peep" the same year.

Spear cut numerous singles during the early '70s, releasing an eponymous debut album in 1973 and a follow up, Rocking Time (1974) -- both produced by Dodd and put out on the Studio One label. Although these records failed to have any major impact in Jamaica at the time, they nevertheless laid the foundations for the rockers style that would become immensely popular by the late '70s. (The Ultimate Collection features a re-working of Spear's first single that appeared on the 1976 album Man in the Hills, as well as versions of other tracks from his first two Studio One albums.)

Having parted ways with Dodd, Spear signed to the Island Records subsidiary Mango and his third full-length release -- Marcus Garvey, produced by Jack Ruby (Lawrence Lindo) -- set him on the path to global fame on the heels of Bob Marley and the Wailers. For this album, Spear was backed by a stellar band, the Black Disciples, that featured drummer Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace, guitar players Valentine "Tony" Chin and Earl "Chinna" Smith, and bassists Robbie Shakespeare and Aston "Family Man" Barrett (the Wailers). The Ultimate Collection includes three of that record's most memorable numbers: Spear's first hit single, "Marcus Garvey", "The Invasion", and "Red, Gold, and Green". These dark, snaking grooves -- in which Burning Spear's vocals are nicely supplemented by the harmonies of Delroy Hines and Rupert Wellington, topped off with resonant horns -- encapsulate Spear's pioneering, heavy roots sound (enhanced, of course, by the mixing magic of Ruby). Moreover, these numbers showcase Spear's genius for penning songs that combine a knowledge of pan-African history and a commitment to spiritual redemption and material liberation.

The alliance with the Black Disciples continued on Man in the Hills (1976) and Dry and Heavy (1977), with Spear himself taking over production duties from Ruby on the latter. Of the tracks from Dry and Heavy included on The Ultimate Collection, one of the standouts is "Throw down Your Arms", on which Spear situates his militancy in a pacifist context. A more urgent tone can be heard amid the tracks from 1978's Social Living, on which Spear was joined by members of the British roots group Aswad. That urgency drives the throbbing hypnotic beat of the title track as well as the brooding "Institution". Of course, Garvey's message remains central to Spear's musical vision here, most notably on "Marcus Children Suffer". Also displaying Spear's incisive historical sensibility is "Columbus" (from Hail H.I.M. [1980]), which denounces colonialism and attacks its false version of events. Declaring the ur-colonist -- who landed in St. Ann's Bay and "discovered" Jamaica -- "a damn blasted liar", Spear re-writes history from the perspective of the oppressed.

One particular treat on The Ultimate Collection is "Jah No Dead", a song that had originally appeared on Social Living (as "Marcus Say Jah No Dead"). The Ultimate Collection contains a haunting rendition taken from the 1979 film Rockers, as performed by Spear on a beach accompanied only by the atmospheric sounds of the crashing surf.

Although the primary focus of this generous collection is Burning Spear's Island Records output between 1975 and 1980, a brief sampling of some of his more recent work is also included. Nevertheless, while numbers from the early '90s like "Should I" and "Jah Kingdom" reinforce his deserved title as reggae's elder statesman, Spear's '70s work remains the most compelling dimension of this release.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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